Why Practice in Community? ~ 4

Relationship – to each other, to animals, to patches of sunlight, to snow, to trees, to our desk and the computer atop it, to parents, to coffee makers, to practice, to everything there is – relationships comprise the foundation of our lives.  To cultivate relationships is to cultivate our lives. To deepen relationships is to recognize our capacity to deepen our understanding of ourselves. 


I have come to understand how you truly cannot describe anything without talking about relationship – almost entirely through the teachings of Michael Stone and the investigations of my own life he has encouraged. Then I attended David Life’s yearly class in New York City on January 3rd.  And in that way the universe has – the teaching was once again brought to the fore front. Or as Davidji said:

“Yoga is the perfection of relationship”

Entering a new session of Satsang (Thursday nights have been scheduled all the way through July!) – I was excited by the message. It also made me think – what are the qualities of relationship, exactly, that we’re working on? A list to get started with:

~ Listening to where someone is coming from as the heart of conversation
~ Giving your attention whole-heartedly
~ Nonharming honesty
~ Responding instead of reacting
~ Silence
~ Residing in Namaste – seeing a person beyond their “stuff” – allowing yourself to be seen
~ Creating a space where there is no good/bad
~ Being aware of the perceptions and conditioning you are automatically putting on the situation
~ Empathy instead of sympathy
~ Dedication to mutually beneficial relationships

None of these, I think, are new for us.  We work with these lessons from our yoga practice all the time – or try to, and fail, and try again, and fall, and try again, and gain a bit of ground, etc.  The unique aspect of Satsang, is that you’re trying this WITH another yogi. Almost all the time we bring our practices into our lives with nonyogis.  While not exclusive to yogis, the following are benefits to practicing in relationship with yogis:

1)    Accountability: Similar to meditation, sitting with a group inspires your posture, how long you stay sitting, and even the stillness within. Practicing relationship with yogis inspires us to stick with the work, to say the difficult thing, to not chicken out trying a new way of listening that is completely counter to the way we’ve been conditioned to over the years, or waiting until “next time”, or however else we let our habits slide when not held accountable to anyone other than ourselves.

2)    Mirrors: Yogis make excellent mirrors of each other –  Right in the moment, we can see how another yogi responds to the same situation. It’s inspiring, and it’s a great encouragement. One of the recent teachings I received was from watching the way another yogi looked me in the eyes whole-heartedly when I offered her a hot cup of water to warm her cold hands.  I saw how I was able to be in the moment enough to respond to her need, but when it came time for me to socially accept her deep thanks, i reverted to my introverted deflection and scurried away.

3)    Sharing: Other yogis are WITH you – they get how important this work is. They’re interested and intrigued by what you’ve been working on or thinking about. They want to know more about that meditation technique you learned, or that article you read, or what happened when you tried this with your coworker.

“It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is.” – Hermann Hesse

Whether it’s in one of the monthly Satsangs at Mala, or with your own group of yogis, or non-affiliated practitioners – take the time this year to make relationship your practice.


Ahimsa-pratisthayam tat-sannidhau vaira-tyagah PYS II.35
In the presence of one who is established in nonviolence, all hostilities cease.

On the subway the other day there was a group of young teenagers. They were acting boisterously and reveling in each other, as teens are wont to do.  Suddenly, some part of their revel caused a great big BANG! of some kind to occur.

One teenager sheepishly says “That was loud…”

To which a compatriot replied “So?  We’re in public… we’re not bothering nobody.”

While most of us would smile, as I did, at the idea of the compatriot, it made me realize we tend to share her perspective to a certain extent.  We believe only in private do we affect others, are we important, can we disturb, are we connected. In public we tighten, draw in, arm ourselves and step out the door ready for battle.

That may seem a bit extreme, but take a moment to think about the degree to which you allow yourself to be vulnerable, perhaps even the degree to which you think vulnerability is more of a detriment to life, then a positive.  Every time we step away from being vulnerable, one layer of armor is put on in order to deal with others – in private or public.

The armor we put on is generally in places where we have been hurt before.  When someone “steps” on the places we’ve armored ourselves –  we get triggered and react himsically.  So ironically, in order to lessen harm, we wind up creating it.

In a recent teacher training with Rodney Yee, a student asked him “What do I do? All of these practices, when I practice them intently, leave me feeling sensitive. What do I do when I leave the practice space with that sensitivity?”  To which he replied. “Nothing”

For him, one major benefit of the practice is to create and cultivate this sensitivity, and then share it with others. What’s the point if you’re open, vulnerable, and able to be authentic on your mat, if you close it all off when you walk out the door?  Wouldn’t it be a more worthwhile question to ask “What do I do to stay sensitive when with others?” “How can I cultivate a vulnerability I can share with others?”

One way is to decide before you leave your house, every morning, to let go. Decide that nothing will be more important that day – not being on time, not your personal space, not being right – then ahimsa, then the breath.  Because your ability to breathe slow and steadily like in asana class, is in direct correlation to how long you can stay vulnerable without drawing on armor, or allowing yourself to get triggered into harmful feelings.

This requires a great deal of self-honesty, to know yourself that well.  We actually spend most of our time ignoring the places we’ve been wounded, the places we lash out, the places we’ve armored.  If we do look at them, we are usually looking at the story of how it happened, why it happened, etc. – and never just letting it be that it happened.

A second way is in a preceding sutra (PYS II.33).  “When one is disturbed by disturbing thoughts, think the opposite.”  This is not the idea of putting a silver-lining on an event.  It is the idea of antidotes – the idea that it’s not possible to hit someone and shake their hand at the same time.  We must make a choice.   It is a choice for our own inner state.  It does not mean we put a happy face on the situation or wish it were different. It’s acknowledging that the only thing that we can truly change is ourselves, and so we change it. We uncurl the fist, and open our hand to shake. It doesn’t mean the other person is any more likable, any less arrogant or hurtful, any closer to being a better person with better choices.  We have decided to shift our own perspective, without trying to shift anything else.

A third way to think about that is inspired by Ram Dass. In his book Paths to God, he relates a conversation he had with his father, a lawyer.  Ram Dass had recently put out a recording of his talks, and was selling it for the exact price it took him to produce. His father found this ridiculous, asking him, even, if he was against capitalism!  🙂  Ram Dass asked him how much he had charged his Uncle Henry on a recent case his father had argued for Uncle Henry.  His father asked if Ram Dass was crazy?! You don’t charge family.  Ram Dass’s reply was that since he saw everyone as his family, he wouldn’t rip them off any more than his father would rip off Uncle Henry.

David Life describes the practice of yoga, in one part, as a practice of widening our circle of compassion. That we have our usual group of people we include in there – and if we can just keep extending it to 3 more people, to a couple more, to all different types of beings, to nonbeings – then we really start living in ahimsa.

The People – By Beaver Chief

A fourth way is the koan level, as Michael Stone calls it. This is when you are so steady in ahimsa, you embody it when you walk, in the way you put away props, the way you get into bed, and out of bed, the way you do laundy, and buy a metrocard – it’s all en expression of ahimsa.

A last way comes to us from Dogen – who advises that we speak to everyone as we would a baby. I don’t believe he’s asking us to make babytalk to everyone we meet. But if you can think about moments when you are talking to a baby – and how open and vulnerable you are in front of a baby – they see right through you, there’s no place to hide, and what would you really try to hide anyway? Think also, of how you think of that baby – as full of potential, possibility, of the concentrated seed of all the world of humanity.  Then they get older and we start seeing them quite differently, and consequently, speaking to them quite differently.  Could you offer this to others? Could you speak to them from that place in you, to that place in them?

In the end – it’s working towards cultivating a place of ahimsa within you – so it’s not so much something you have to do. You don’t have to do ahimsa, and try to speak ahimsa. You just are ahimsa, then you’re just sharing it with others. You are reshaping the field of people, beings, nonbeings, and energy around you, just the way you are.

Asana as Object of Meditation

Yathabhimata-dhyanada va  PYS I.39
– Or (steadiness of mind is attained) from meditation upon anything of one’s inclination.

This sutra appears at the end of a listing of various objects a yogi is suggested to use for meditation practice.  In the yoga system, meditation is almost exclusively encouraged through methods of concentrating the mind in one place, creating a groove in the mind in one direction that replaces and stills all the multiple grooves and dances the mind is usually following.  Once this one pattern is established, it too, eventually, is let go and:

Tada drastuh svarupe vastanama PYS I.3
-Then the seer abides in her/his own true nature

In Edwin Bryant’s commentary on this sutra, he mentions BKS Iyengar’s book Tree of Yoga.  In this book Mr. Iyengar offers what Edwin Bryant sees as an innovation to sutra I.39 – to take asana as the object of meditation.  This is an innovation because while asana is mentioned several times in the yoga sutras, it is never mentioned in this context. However, if a yogi were to practice asana with it being the single point of concentration, Edwin Bryant says, it would absolutely be in line with these teachings.  It might, he says, even be a more advisable practice than ever before, due to the way that most yoga is approached today – through asana.

How then can we put this in to practice? How do we make asana, which is constantly changing throughout a practice, something steady enough to meditate on, as an object of concentration?  The breath seems like a good lead, but that has its own sutra.  A specific body part could work, and I believe does in the Iyengar tradition, but it doesn’t really suit the vinyasa style class, in my mind.

This reminds me of what Davidji spoke about during the Master Classes at the beginning of the year.  While sitting in virasana (hero’s pose), he asked us to consider what the “energy signature” of the pose is. He said that all poses have their own energy signature – much like an energetic graffiti tag.  He encouraged us to see it.  Then to have a sense of each energy signature like a sound vibration, or like a letter, and that when we practice a vinyasa (especially a strict one-breath-count vinyasa like Suryanamaskars) to feel that we are stringing them together into a sentence, a chant, a prayer.  And it’s not cool to mispronounce prayers… So make sure that each pose is as fully “pronounced” an energy signature as your body is capable of, then let go and move onto the next.

I believe if we were to set this as our intention for our vinyasa practice – to really enact asana as chants or prayers, with that much concentration on fully enunciating the energy signature, we could approach this idea of using asana as a point of concentration.

To fully enunciate the signature requires a great deal of concentration – and a dialogue between the external structure of the body, and the internal energy.  Without the external structure and alignment being maintained, the energy signature gets static-y or completely fuzzed out. Without the energy signature, we may as well be doing any other form of workout. To fully enunciate a pose, to create a resonant vibration of a chant with our asana, it is necessary to have this back and forth between the external and internal – in every pose, every time, all class long.

From there we could begin to imagine how carrying over a practice like this to our day would make us more aware of the moment to moment of our lives.  We might be encouraged to savor the moments more, and be less likely to arrive at the end of the day and feel like it was all a blur.  We might even start to be aware of the “sentences” that we create with the physical and mental asanas we perform throughout the day, and decide if we could make them more true to the story we want to be creating on our path.

Atha Yoga Nusasanam PYS I.1

At the Opening Ceremony for the Jivamukti Tribe Gathering – the week of teachings by Sharon Gannon & David Life –  Sharonji read a list of all the countries that were represented by students in attendance. It was a long and eclectic list, from all over the world.  It seemed impressive to me at the time, mostly from the standpoint of “Wow, I can’t believe how long that flight must have been” or some other logistical theme.


It wasn’t until a few days later, just before my third class with Davidji, that I fully experienced what that meant. My mat was down towards the back of the room, and the scope of how many people were in front of me, how many people were practicing yoga became almost tangible. From there, I started to think of all the people in America who do yoga, and then started to think about the millions of people all over the world that do yoga.


Millions of people every day are doing yoga – and with time zones probably all day.  All of these people working towards cultivating clear seeing of the self, working towards living the yamas, working towards compassion and peace, working towards cultivating flexibility inside and out, working towards being the best they can be in this lifetime, and it is by and large confined to the studio.


Yes, amazing things have transpired “off the mat” because of the efforts of yogis. But I was staggered to think of the true potential, and also how we as yogis are not living up to it. I finally understood – felt – what Michael Stone speaks of when he talks about horizontal transcendence. Because what is the point, of all of that work, of all of the millions of people cultivating yoga, if it only stays in the studio?


Imagine the possibility if everyone in the world who does yoga in the studio, practiced while they were outside the studio, if we had all those millions of people walking around with yoga as the first step they take in each moment, paying attention to the way that they breathe, the way that they speak… if the world were as filled with what people cultivated on the mat – in the world itself.


So here’s to an auspicious year of living into the potential of uniting outside the studio in our practice – the way we do on the mat. Because what we cultivate is too precious, too transformative, too amazing not to be shared.  Not to do so is a waste– because we have the potential to transform, actually transform, what happens outside the studio, if we truly harness what we cultivate within and share it.


atha yoga nusasanam PYS I.1 – now is the practice of yoga

Teachings of the teachers

The first week of 2012 brings my teachers to New York City. If you’ve ever been been touched by one of my classes, it was their light passing through to you.  I highly recommend taking the opportunity to directly study with them, as they don’t spend much time in the city.  Hopefully I’ll see you there!

Sharon Gannon & David Life

Jivamukti Tribe Gathering
January 1st-5th

Rodney Yee & Colleen Saidman Yee

Vira Yoga
January 4th
January 5th